Monday, April 13, 2015

Mini-Review: Fool’s Errand by Robin Hobb

The books of Robin Hobb are some that have been sitting there on the shelf for a long time. I first read The Farseer Trilogy nearly 15 years ago and followed relatively quickly with The Liveship Traders Trilogy. I’ve always meant to read the books in The Tawny Man Trilogy, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t happened. And now, with Hobb returning to the story of Fitz in a new trilogy (The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy – first book Fool’s Assassin), and seeing people whose opinions I trust say how great that return is, I finally took the plunge with Fool’s Errand, the first book of The Tawny Man Trilogy.

So, what’s it like to return to the story of someone after a 15 year break? Well, when your reading ‘old-fashioned’, 1990’s/early 2000’s era fantasy, it works great. Fool’s Errand is quite long for the story that’s told – much of it is spent re-introducing the reader to Fitz and others, which is exactly what I needed. There are hints and remembrance of the Farseer books, and I vaguely remember what happened, but only in broad terms. So, the details don’t mean much, while providing me what I need to move on.

While I often avoid traditionally, BFF (big, fat fantasy) books, I can see a real value in the level of immersion that it provides. You really get to know Fitz, see what drives him, understand those motivations, and therefore, share in the journey – tragic or triumphant. This further impacted by the first-person narration that Hobb does so well.

As I read Fool’s Assassin, I felt a lot of nostalgia – this is in part driven to me searching my memory for books read 15 years ago, and in part because the style of Fool’s Errand feels like something from the past in comparison with so many of the books I read today. And it was like snuggling down into an especially comfortable bed and piling on those warm, soft blankets – it was pleasure.

Looking up, I see that this ‘review’ has rambled on about how I felt about reading the book, without much actual discussion of the book itself. Well, take it or leave it – most of you reading this review have probably read Fool’s Errand, or at least one book in The Farseer Trilogy. You are ‘the choir’. There’s a damn good chance that reading this review is your own form of nostalgia. Isn’t it great?

So, do I have you feeling all warm and fuzzy about a book that’s about an assassin coming out of retirement? Returning to the court that ‘executed’ him in spite of him saving the kingdom? As you remember The Farseer Trilogy, do you think this one is going to turn out well?

Warm and fuzzy.

The Farseer Trilogy
Assassin’s Apprentice (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Royal Assassin (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Assassin’s Quest (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

The Liveship Traders
Ship of Magic (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Ship of Destiny (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

The Tawney Man Trilogy
Fool’s Errand (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

Fitz and the Fool Trilogy
Fool’s Assassin (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)

Friday, April 10, 2015

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Over the past couple of years I've repeatedly heard the praise for Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon). That praise is basically summed up by some version of the following: if any of your formative years were spent in the 1980's and if you spent any time watching movies and playing video games, then this books is for you. Well, I did those things, so it should be for me, right?

YES! To repeat what I've seen one version or another – it’s like this book was written exactly for me. I did see all those movies, I watched those shows, I had that Atari game. And that one. I spent hours at the arcade plugging quarters into that machine. D&D.

This book was made for geek culture – particularly us geeks who spent time in the 1980's. It tells the story of a frightening, but all too likely future, that is if not dystopic, is the next thing to it. Only the stratification of that future, where there are haves and have-nots – the top is dominated by that geek who huddled in the corner, who had no life, who couldn't talk to girls. He went and took over the world – or perhaps, more correctly – re-created the world via virtual reality to suite himself. And then he made everyone like exactly the things he liked. Ready Player One works so well because it tells the story of that stereotypical nerdy underdog rising up and not just winning, but winning everything. It’s the story about the legacy of one such winner and the creation of another.

And it’s told almost entirely through references to the 1980's. TV shows, videogames, movies, computer games, D&D, etc. It’s very nearly perfect. It’s way fun. And it’s triumphant. Of course it’s going to be made into a movie directed by none other than Stephen Spielberg – how could it not be? The book isn't a journey, it’s a game, it’s a quest, it’s an Easter egg hunt. And everyone gets to play.

There’s only one issue I had with the book – an issue that fits in so well with a book rooted in geek culture of the 1980s. This is a dude book. The reality is that there is only one female character in this book, and she is completely defined as love interest number one. The geek goddess that the geek protagonist falls in love with. She serves no other purpose. It doesn’t matter that she’s, smart and capable (even ’badass’) – her purpose in this book is to serve the geek protagonist. This is an unfortunate reinforcement of so much of embedded misogyny of geek culture – one issue that geek culture is struggling so hard to get past now. Some will point to a spoilerific moment toward the end as a refutation of the above, but really, that changes very little in how ‘girls’ are framed in this book. Some may point to the final pages of the book to say ‘look, see, it’s OK dude’, but I’m sorry, the climax of geek’s wet dream doesn't fix anything. Essays could be written, but this review isn’t the place, and I lack the pedigree to pull it off as it should be.

Could Ready Player One both be the book that it is and deal with this issue respectfully and intelligently? I have to think the answer is yes. If geek culture is going to get passed these issues, then authors really need to step up to the challenge of making it so – and really, it’s often not such a great challenge at all.

But, as I said, this is a dude book, and I’m a dude. It was written for me. In more than a few ways, it was written about me. And yes, even considering that little big issue I mention above (of which I have my fair share of culpability for in my own time), I loved every fucking minute of Ready Player One. This is one of those books that kept me up late reading, it stayed with me after I stopped reading, it had me truly excited to read in a way that so few books can achieve.

In retrospect it’s damn near depressing how a book that is so rooted in a flavor of pop culture could affect me so strongly. Again, essays could be written about this. It’s Meta, maybe intentional, maybe not, but Ready Player One is paradox in what it rebels against as it embraces just that. Perhaps that’s THE paradox of geek culture itself. Which I suppose makes all the more appropriate in Ready Player One.

But in the end, I can only repeat what I said above…

I loved every fucking minute of Ready Player One!

Friday, April 03, 2015

Review: Wisp of a Thing by Alex Bledsoe

I find that some of the books I enjoy most are basically a form of modern mythic – sometimes this is called mythic fiction, and what feels like a long-lost time ago, many of these books were considered urban fantasy. However you choose to define them, these are books that are set in a modern(ish) world and contain a deep connection to some mythic past, often through or including nature, though not necessarily so, often through some form of spirit or mythic race, and music often plays a very important role. The books of Charles de Lint immediately come across like this and other names like Robert Holdstock fit just as easily. And now I’ve found another name to add to this list – Alex Bledsoe and his Tufa novels. Two are currently available, The Hum and Shiver and Wisp of a Thing, with a forthcoming book titled Long Black Curl.

The Tufa are a people in small area in Appalachia that have a mysterious past and deep connection to music and the land they live on – they mistrust outsiders and many rumors swirl about them – often dark, tragic rumors that are only whispered.

When I first came across the description of these books – something like that paraphrased discussion above – I knew these books were for me. I had the second, Wisp of a Thing and was very hesitant to jump in – once I was informed that while related, each book stands on its own, I could no longer resist the call and plunged into the deep, old forests of Appalachia and the Tufa.

I’ve often wondered why these mythic books appeal so much to me and I believe it begins with my love of the outdoors. But it’s way more than that, because these mythic books can succeed without ever stepping out of the concrete jungle of a city. I think it must be the combination of what is often a love and respect for the world that is beyond what is found in modern life, with a deep connection to the past in combination with an otherworld-ness that feels just out of reach. It’s that ‘irrational’ fear of that dark place, the ‘unnatural’ feeling of an old forest at night, the unexplainable connection of hugging a tree, the transcendence of music.

When stories achieve this place, they lose that common focus of an external goal – be it a quest, or vengeance, or whatever. It becomes a journey internal to those who experience it. The pace slows and the story takes over like a song while escape is an unwanted dream.

Wisp of a Thing does all of these. There is a deep, personal journey, not a hero’s journey, not one where the end is known, but a journey none-the-less. The old world music of Appalachia plays a big part, along with weathered epitaphs in lost, overgrown cemeteries. It’s tragic and hopeful. Love is lost and found. Old wrongs are righted. Blood runs deep.  

I loved Wisp of a Thing – now I crave a journey into the mountains of Appalachia, a hike down my favorite trail to visit that giant old-growth Ponderosa Pine, to look out over the beauty of the land around and listen to the music of the wind. For whatever reason, my love of mythic fiction doesn’t end, but it does fade to the back only to seemingly leap up out of nowhere. Through Bledsoe and the Tufa, I now have another ever-present beginning of a journey waiting for me. I will be back again…and again…and again…

The Hum and Shiver (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Wisp of a Thing (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)
Long Black Curl (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon)


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